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To Cultivate and to Guard: The Universal Duties of Mankind

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
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When seeking to shape our personalities according to Torah values, we must relate to at least three levels of expectation and responsibility. These can be regarded as concentric circles, moving from the broader to the more specific:

1) the universal demands placed upon one simply as a human being;

2) the demands of a Jew;

3) the responsibilities of a ben-Torah, one who makes Torah study a central part of his life and embodies its values.


            I wish to deal now with the first level. What are the basic, cardinal, universal values for which every person should strive?



Let us open a Chumash (Pentateuch) to the chapter describing the creation of man and see what task was assigned to him.


The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to guard it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” (Bereishit 2:15-17)


            In the seventh chapter of Sanhedrin, the Gemara derives the seven universal Noachide Laws from the last two of these verses. However, I would like to address the first of these verses: God placed man (Adam) in the garden “le-ovdah u-leshomrah,” to work or cultivate the garden and to guard it. Here we have two distinct tasks. One, “le-shomrah,” is largely conservative, aimed at preserving nature. It means to guard the world, to watch it—and watching is essentially a static occupation, seeing to it that things do not change, that they remain as they are. This is what Adam was expected to do, and part of our task in the world is indeed to guard that which we have been given: our natural environment, our social setting, our religious heritage.


            In a sense, we are expected also to be a shomer (guard) of the Torah itself. What do Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola, the sages of the Great Assembly, mean when they instruct us to “Make a fence around the Torah” (Avot 1:1)? They mean to guard it, to watch it. Similarly, Chazal speak of “Asu mishmeret le-mishmarti, Set a guard around My guard” (Mo’ed Katan 5a, Yevamot 21a). We often use the term shomer mitzva to describe someone. This doesn’t just mean that he does what the Shulchan Arukh says, but also that he guards it; he sees to it that the mitzva as an entity, as a reality, remains pure; he envisions himself as having a sense of responsibility towards it. All this is included in the term “le-shomrah” (to guard it).


            At the same time, there is the task of “le-ovdah” (to cultivate it), which is essentially creative: to develop, to work, to innovate. This applied even in the Garden of Eden, which, according to some of the midrashim, was already a perfect environment.


            Here we have, then, two foci of our primary obligation: a) to guard, to have a sense of responsibility in relation to that which we have been given; and b) to work and to develop. Although Adam was commanded specifically to till and guard the Garden of Eden, I think that we would not be stretching things too far if we were to understand that this mandate applies far beyond that particular little corner of the Garden where Adam and Eve were placed. What we have here is a definition of how man is to be perceived in general: as a shomer and as an oved.




Le-shomrah—To Honor, Protect and Preserve



As I said, the mandate to guard relates in part to the natural world; the concern for ecology has some basis in this. To some extent, this mandate extends to the society one is in. But to a great extent, it applies in relation to oneself. One must guard the human personality itself and everything appended to it, one’s dalet amot (four cubits) which he assumes to be his own private domain.


            Now, this is of great importance and needs to be stressed, because we are dealing here with a fundamentally religious perception that runs counter to the notions prevalent within the widely secular society in which we find ourselves. The essence of modern secular culture is the notion of human sovereignty; individual man is master over himself, and collective man is master over his collective. This creates problems as to where the line is to be drawn between individual and collective man, and that issue is the crux of much of modern socio-political theory—when the state can and cannot interfere. But the common denominator of all these discussions is that they think fundamentally in terms of human sovereignty, the question being whether you speak of humanity or of a particular person.


            From a religious point of view, of course, eilu va-eilu divrei avoda zara—both approaches are idolatrous. Here one establishes individual man as an idol, and there one idolizes, in humanistic terms, humanity as a whole. The basis of any religious perception of human existence is the sense that man is not a master: neither a master over the world around him, nor a master over himself.



Of course, this is not to say that the notion of private property does not exist. It certainly exists within religious thought generally, and within Judaism specifically; the notion of private property is a very central concept in Halakha, and large sections of the Talmud are devoted to it. Rather, what this means is that the notion of property is never absolute. It is always relative; ultimately, “La-Hashem ha-aretz u-melo’ah, The Earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds” (Tehillim 24:1). But within the world in which we exist, we can say that relative to Shimon, Reuven has been granted ownership, or that relative to the individual, the community has been granted authority.


            In this manner, one can understand the gemara in Berakhot (35a-b) which points out a seeming contradiction between two verses in Tehillim: on the one hand, “The Heavens belong to the Lord, but the Earth He gave over to man” (115:16), and on the other hand, “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds” (24:1). The gemara answers: “This is not really a difficulty. One verse is speaking of the reality before a person has recited a berakha (blessing), and the other verse is speaking of the reality after a person has said a berakha.”


            A person who partakes of the world without reciting a berakha has, so to speak, stolen from God; he has committed an offense of me’ila (misusing that which has been consecrated to God). However, when he pronounces a berakha, this does not mean that the item is now absolutely his. It is not like purchasing a loaf of bread from a storeowner, who then disappears from the picture. Heaven forbid! “Mine is the silver and mine is the gold, says the Lord of Hosts” (Chaggai 2:8). Rather, the gemara teaches that, at an operational level, there are two different levels of one’s mastery over the object, in terms of the permissibility for one to use it. Initially, you cannot partake in any way. But once you say the berakha, you have in effect recognized God’s ownership. You recognize His hegemony, you accept the fact that you live subject to Him, you have acknowledged His sovereignty, and now you partake of the world with His permission. Through our reciting a berakha, God grants us permission the way a medieval king might have delegated a fief to a particular person.


            Regarding some forms of kodashim (sacred items), the gemara says, “Mi-shulchan gavo’ah ka zakhu, They have acquired it from Heaven’s table” (see Beitza 21a, Bava Metzia 92a). What the gemara says in a narrow halakhic sense is true in a broader sense of our ability to partake of the world. We are guests at God’s table. This means that whatever we have in the world, we have as shomerim (guards)—it has been given to us to guard and we are never truly masters.


            Now, of course, there are different kinds of shomerim. There are those who have only responsibilities and no rights, such as a shomer chinam (unpaid guard) and a shomer sakhar (paid guard). On the other hand, a sho’el (borrower) and a sokher (renter) have both chiyyuvim and kinyanim (liabilities and rights). In the sense that we too have both chiyyuvim and kinyanim, we are analogous to a sho’el or sokher. (However, the analogy is not exact, since, unlike a sho’el, we do not have rights against the Owner; we merely have rights to use the property, given the Owner’s continuing consent.) And if this is true regarding property, it is equally true of our own selves.



I mentioned earlier the prevalent secular conception of one’s “ownership” of himself. One hears this argument in various contexts, especially with regard to the question of abortion: it’s a woman’s right, it’s her own body, she can do what she wants, etc. Years back, I was asked to testify before a subcommittee of the Knesset which dealt with abortions. Among other things, I mentioned that, leaving aside the significant question of whether it is the woman’s body only or whether the fetus has some rights as well, there is a more fundamental problem. Even if we were to accept that indeed it is the woman’s own body, we totally reject the conception that she then can do with it as she pleases. This is a completely anti-halakhic perception. It rests on a secular assumption that, as it were, “My Nile is my own; I made it for myself” (Yechezkel 29:3), as if we are the source of our own existence and therefore the masters of our own being. This is assuredly not the case. In absolute terms, a person does not own himself.


            In fact, there are prohibitions that apply to how a person relates to himself. Just as one is forbidden to injure or curse others, so is he forbidden to injure himself or to curse himself. Similarly, the mitzva of “Ve-nishmartem me’od le-nafshoteikhem, Take utmost care of yourselves” (Devarim 4:15) specifically prohibits a person from taking unnecessary risks, even though he will not affect anybody else. The very notion that a person should be free to do what he wants with relation to himself is at absolute odds with our conception. We believe that you are never an independent entity, nor do you “own” yourself; you are always a shomer appointed by God. That applies to your “property,” to your own self, and certainly to your relationship to what surrounds you.



Let us now further refine our understanding of the duty of “leshomrah.” It has not only a negative aspect, namely, that a person does not have the right to dispose of objects arbitrarily or even to deal with himself as he wishes. It has also a positive aspect: there is an obligation to be a shomer, and not merely in order to avoid damage. Although this is essentially a passive activity, there nevertheless is an active aspect to it as well. The Rambam says:


The guarding of the Temple is a positive commandment. This applies even though there is no fear of enemies or bandits, for its guarding is in order to honor it. A palace with guards is not comparable to a palace without guards. (Hilkhot Beit Habechira 8:1)


Even though there is no fear of invasion, nevertheless the Mikdash (Temple) must have shomerim. Why? They serve as an honor guard. Le-havdil, the Swiss Guards do not protect the Vatican from enemies, nor do guards stand outside Buckingham Palace out of fear that someone is going to enter. Rather, guards are stationed out of a sense of kavod (honor) for the palterin shel melekh (palace of the king); there is a sense of elevation, of nobility, of something unique that requires guarding.


            Now, this sense of palterin shel melekh which requires guarding is presumably part of the mandate Adam initially received. When he was placed in the Garden “le-ovdah u-leshomrah,” against whom was it being guarded? The animals were part of the Garden, and there was nobody else around, no one to invade. Rather, you guard something which you value and appreciate; you hover over it constantly. While, of course, the Mikdash is palterin shel Melekh in a very special sense, the world as a whole is also palterin shel Melekh: “The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool” (Yeshayahu 66:1). In this sense, we must all cultivate a concern for and a sensitivity to the natural order as a whole, to that Garden of Eden into which we have been placed. This is part of kevod Shamayim, yirat Shamayim and malkhut Shamayim (the honor, fear and sovereignty of Heaven). In fact, our responsibility with respect to the orders of creation—natural, human, social and personal— is now heightened, since, subsequent to Adam’s sin, there are indeed real dangers which threaten them.


            There is a term which Chazal (the Sages) always apply in relation to shomerim: achrayut, responsibility. In our capacity as shomerim, we must live with a sense of responsibility, obligation and demands. What is demanded is not simply a kind of passive awareness, but rather the application of consciousness. What does a shomer have to do? He must be alert. His human self must be asserted, that part of him which can watch, which is intelligent, which guards. One guards with intelligence. When he combines his intelligence, sensitivity and awareness of the importance of what he is guarding with a sense of duty and readiness—that is what being a shomer is all about.




Le-ovdah—The Work Ethic


The sense of duty I mentioned above with regard to “le-shomrah” applies likewise to the first component of Adam’s mandate—“ le-ovdah.” It is not enough to guard; one needs also to develop and to create. Let us be mindful that this applied even in what seemingly had been a perfect world! “And God saw all that He had made and found it very good” (Bereishit 1:31). If all is wonderful and perfect, what need is there for “le-ovdah?” There are two possible answers. Although the difference between them is of great significance in many areas, I would prefer not to focus on the clash between them, but rather to see them both as being correct.



The first answer is that, indeed, the world was created perfect— but part of that perfection, and one of the components within that order, is human activity. Part of “And He found it very good” is man, not existing simply as a biological being enjoying the world, but rather as a functional being who con- tributes, creates and works. The need for man to work is not part of the curse subsequent to the sin; man was originally placed in the Garden in order to cultivate it. The curse was that man would have to battle with an unwilling earth: “Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. . . . By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (Bereishit 3:18-19). But the fact that one needs to work at all is part of the primeval, primordial order, irrespective of any element of sin. This had been intended from the beginning. Simply put, this is indeed a perfect order, provided that man does his part. If man does not, then one of the pieces of the picture has fallen out, and the world is no longer perfect.


            According to this approach, both “le-ovdah” and “le-shomrah” are designed to maintain the world at its present level, and this entails two components: passively guarding against damage and actively working in order to replenish. We need to work so that the natural processes repeat themselves; if you do not contribute your share, the seasons come and go, but nature does not replenish itself.



The second approach assumes that “le-ovdah” is a mandate to go beyond the original state of creation. “Le-ovdah” is not meant simply to maintain the original standard; rather, we have been given the right and the duty to try to transcend it. While the former approach asserts that man was asked to maintain the world as God had created it, this answer claims that man was empowered and enjoined to create something better, as it were.


            Although this approach is audacious, we find it advanced by Chazal in several places. Perhaps the most celebrated is the midrash (Tanchuma, Parashat Tazria) which speaks of the encounter between the Roman governor Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva. Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “If God wanted man to be circumcised, then why did He not create him that way?” Rabbi Akiva responded, “Bring me some wheat.” Then he said, “Bring me a loaf of bread.” He asked, “Which do you prefer to eat, the bread or the wheat?” “Naturally, the bread,” Turnus Rufus replied. Rabbi Akiva retorted, “Do you not see now that the works of flesh and blood are more pleasant than those of God?” There is a certain audacity here, but these are the words of Rabbi Akiva! What you have here is an assertion of human ability and grandeur, and of human responsibility to engage in this kind of improvement.


            The extent to which this particular view is accepted depends on whether one adopts, to a greater or lesser degree, a humanistic perspective. Humanists talk a great deal about man placing his imprint upon the world, improving it, building it, and so on. When I say humanists, I am not talking only about secular humanists; I mean religious humanists within our world as well. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, for example, talk a great deal about the need for man to create.


            Historically, this debate has found expression in some very strange contexts. In late seventeenth-century England, there was a vigorous debate about the hills and valleys. Some assumed that in the Newtonian world of mathematical precision, a perfect world presumably would be perfectly shaped. How, then, to explain the indentations of hills and valleys which seem to mar what should be a perfectly round globe? People with a more Romantic perspective said that it’s nicer this way, with some variety; who would want the whole world to be as flat as the New Jersey Turnpike? Others gave a more theological interpretation: really, a perfect world would be a perfect globe without any ups and downs, but God made the mountains and the valleys so that man should have the challenge of flattening everything. To us, this debate seems curious, but the basic notion is clear.


            The debate about the role of art similarly reflects these two basic positions about man’s relation to the world. Plato claimed that artists misrepresent reality. He believed that the ultimate reality is the world of ideas, of which our world is just a kind of reflection or image. Now, says Plato, what does the poet or the artist do? He has the image of the image, and is now two steps removed from reality, instead of being one step away. So he banished all of them from his ideal republic. One response was given to this by Plotinus. The best known statement of this response in English is Sir Philip Sidney’s “The Defense of Poesy,” an essay written in the late sixteenth century. Sidney says that Plato’s perception is wrong: the poet does not imitate nature, he goes beyond nature. The natural world, he says, is brass, but the poet’s world is gold.



For our purposes, however, both of these approaches to the value of labor can be regarded as correct. What is important is the sense of human responsibility and the recognition of the importance of building the world and improving society. To us, work is indeed a central value. Chazal have numerous statements to this effect. For example, just as there is an obligation to rest on Shabbat, there is also an obligation that “Six days shall you labor and do all your work” (Shemot 20:9); the two are somewhat interrelated (see Avot De-Rabbi Natan, version B, chap. 21, and Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Shemot 20:9).


            In a famous statement, the Rambam spoke of this in a halakhic context. The gemara (Sanhedrin 25b) says that a dice-player (i.e. a gambler) is disqualified from giving testimony in court. Two reasons are offered for this. One opinion is that he is a sort of thief, because of the halakhic principle that “asmakhta lo kanya.” Whoever gambles does so because he assumes he is going to win, and if he knew that he would lose he wouldn’t gamble.


            Thus, he gambles based upon an asmakhta, relying on an implicit condition. Therefore, the loser does not really transfer ownership of the money, and the winner does not legally acquire it. The second opinion disqualifies a gambler because “eino osek be-yishuvo shel olam,” he is not involved in developing the world constructively. The gemara then brings a practical distinction between these two opinions. According to the first reason (asmakhta), even a person who gambles only occasionally is ineligible to give testimony. However, according to the second approach, only a professional gambler is disqualified—someone who has no other profession, but rather spends his entire day at the racetrack, or doing something similarly non-constructive.


            The Rambam rules according to the latter opinion, but he takes the occasion to generalize:


One who plays dice with a gentile does not transgress the prohibition of stealing, but he does transgress the prohibition of occupying oneself with worthless things, for it is not suitable for a person to occupy himself all the days of his life with anything other than matters of wisdom and the developing of the world. (Hilkhot Gezeila 6:11)


I won’t deal now with the reason the Rambam thinks that the problem of asmakhta doesn’t apply to this case. What is relevant to us is his definition of the two things a person should be engaged in: divrei chokhma (matters of wisdom) and yishuvo shel olam (the developing of the world).



This notion of the significance of work per se, of engaging in yishuvo shel olam, of “le-ovdah,” has several bases. First, in a purely psychological sense, in terms of mental health, one’s self-fulfillment comes through work. For instance, the mishna (Ketubot 5:5, 59b) says that if a woman marries, she is expected to per- form certain tasks in the house, but if she brings servants with her, she does not have to do them. The gemara (ibid.) adds that the more servants she brings, the less she has to do, because they will take care of the needs of the household. However, beyond a certain point, this does not apply; her husband can demand that she do something—anything—because, Rabbi Eliezer says, “Idleness leads to lewdness;” it leads to a loose, lascivious life. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel offers a different reason: “A husband who takes an oath that his wife should do no work, should divorce her and pay her ketuba, since idleness leads to shi’amum.” Shi’amum can be understood either as insanity or as boredom, ennui, a sense of spiritual degradation. Even if she’s as wealthy as Midas, she has to do some kind of work, lest idleness lead to psychological and spiritual problems.


            There is also, of course, a social basis to our emphasis on work. The fact is that work needs to be done. A society in which people work is, in terms of its basic structure and values, very different from one in which they do not. The midrash at the beginning of Lekh Lekha asks: When God told Avraham, “Go forth from your native land . . . to the land which I will show you” (Bereishit 12:1), how did Avraham know when he had arrived at the right place? From a mystical point of view, one might assume that he was attracted by the kedusha (sanctity) inherent within the land. But the midrash gives a very non-mystical explanation:


Rabbi Levi said: When Avram walked through Aram Naharayim and Aram Nachor, he saw the people there eating, drinking and acting loosely. Avram said to himself, “I hope that I do not have a portion in this land.” When he arrived at the cliffs of Tyre (what is now called Rosh Ha-nikra, at the northern border of Israel), he saw people busying themselves with weeding during the season for weeding, hoeing during the time for hoeing, etc. He said to himself, “I hope that I will have a portion in this land.” (Bereishit Rabba 39:8)


            When Avraham saw people lounging around, eating and drinking and having a good time, he knew that he had not yet arrived. But when he saw people performing agricultural tasks that needed to be done, he sensed that he had come to the promised land. That is what attracted him. This was not a land whose people were devoted to the quest for pleasure but rather to commitment, work and responsibility. These are the things that define a culture.


            There is a third basis as well to the emphasis on work, and this is more specifically religious in nature. A person who works is a partner to God in ma’aseh bereishit (creation). In this respect, he is imitating God. Usually we speak of imitating God by being merciful, or by performing acts of chesed (kindness), but the midrash also tells us:


Rabbi Yehuda ben Rabbi Simon said: [The verse states,] “After the Lord your God you shall walk” (Devarim 13:5) . . . [What does this mandate of imitatio Dei entail?] At the beginning of the world’s creation, the Holy One occupied Himself first with planting, as it says, “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden” (Bereishit 2:8); so too, when you enter the Land [of Israel], occupy yourselves first with planting—and thus it says (Vayikra 19:23), “When you enter the land and plant all fruitbearing trees. . .” (Vayikra Rabba 25:3)


Of course, the trees are symbolic of man’s contribution to this world, to nature—something which is planted by human agency, rather than something which appears spontaneously. There are numerous other midrashim in this general vein.



The thrust of all this is that there is significance to work, quite apart from the need to pay your bills. There is, if you will, a certain redemptive quality to work, in psychological, social and religious terms. This notion is not uniquely Jewish. When most people hear about the importance of work, they immediately think of the Puritans and the Puritan work ethic. The Puritans, of course, were very much influenced by Judaism. Certainly, however, there are famous propagators of this general view in circles which are neither Jewish nor Puritan.


            In Thomas Carlyle’s early work Sartor Resartus, he describes his own spiritual crisis. He speaks first of what he describes as “The Everlasting No,” the voice of cynicism and skepticism, but even beyond that of ennui, of a sense of the lack of purpose, meaning, direction and substance in life. From there he moves on to describe “The Center of Indifference,” which is still a very low key type of existence, and then progresses to “The Everlasting Yea,” that which is assertive and positive in relation to the world and human existence. At the heart of the chapter on “The Everlasting Yea” is the notion of work. For Carlyle, the great prophet of work is the late eighteenth-century, early nineteenth-century German writer Goethe. In a famous line, Carlyle says, “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe!” Work is central to “The Everlasting Yea” precisely because of its redemptive capacity.


            In that context, one can view work as part of the collective human responsibility to establish human hegemony and to impose a certain character on nature as a whole. The ennobling conception of work, the sense of challenge, the work ethic (in contrast to a sybaritic, hedonistic existence) can also be found in a secular context. But for us, this is not simply a question of engaging in a great Romantic quest to place the world under human imprint. This is part of what we are doing for God, part of our relationship to Him: we are His guards and we are His laborers. This presents matters in a totally different perspective.



Our attempt to place the human imprint on nature is part of God’s mandate: “Fill the earth and master it, and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all living things that creep on earth” (Bereishit 1:28). But whereas that mandate in the first chapter is formulated in terms of rights, in the second chapter (“le-ovdah u-leshomrah”) it is formulated in terms of obligation— it is part of our responsibility, part of our task.


            This notion of the centrality and importance of work, as opposed to pursuing a life of leisure and hedonism, runs counter to the message that is inundating the Western world. The implicit idea in all the crass advertising you see is that, ideally, you shouldn’t work at all; ideally, you would retire when you’re eighteen. Small wonder that many people have reached the conclusion that the less they work, the better off they are. The notion of leisure has suddenly become a problem in sociological and moral terms. There is a whole literature about the problem of leisure, precisely because work is perceived as a necessary evil, and not as spiritually redemptive.


            For us, however, the sense of effort, of striving, above all of working (in Milton’s phrase) “as ever in my great Taskmaster’s eye,” is very central. “Le-ovdah u-leshomrah,” the sense of the importance of work and a work-oriented life, is part of the universal mandate; it is part of what we, as benei-Torah, understand to be central to our being.



I mention this point particularly to an American audience. In recent years, one observes on the American scene a terribly disturbing phenomenon: the spread of hedonistic values, but with a kind of glatt-kosher packaging. There was a time when the problem of hedonism for religious Jews didn’t often arise, because even if you wanted to have the time of your life, there wasn’t very much that you could do. The country clubs were all barred to Jews, there weren’t many kosher restaurants, there were no kosher nightclubs, etc. In the last decade or two, a whole culture has developed geared towards frum Jews, where the message is enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, and everything has a hekhsher (kosher certification) and a super-hekhsher. The message is that whatever the gentiles have, we have too. They have trips to the Virgin Islands, we have trips to the Virgin Islands. Consequently, there has been a certain debasement of values, in which people have a concern for the minutiae of Halakha (which, of course, one should be concerned about), but with a complete lack of awareness of the extent to which the underlying message is so totally non-halakhic and anti-halakhic.


            Don’t misunderstand me—I am not opposed to people enjoying themselves to some extent. I am not arguing for a totally ascetic approach to life; I don’t live that way myself, and what I don’t practice I certainly am not going to preach. In a sense, I don’t practice it because I don’t really think that it is demanded. (There certainly were gedolim [great rabbis] who did advocate it, but others disagreed.) The question is something else entirely. The question is not whether there is room in human life for a person to have a certain measure of pleasure. Rather, the question is what is his basic perspective? How much does he involve himself in this? Does he see himself as basically being born to enjoy or to work?


            There is nothing wrong with a person wanting to enjoy, to have a good meal. But if you open up the food critic’s column in a newspaper it is simply muktzeh machmat mi’us (untouchable because of being revolting)! A person who is morally sensitive finds it impossible to read those columns. They begin discussing, for example, the advantages of one airline food over another: here the food was a little bit underdone, there a little bit overdone, the vegetables were a little too fresh, not fresh enough; they begin to go into the finest details. It is astonishing that a person should devote so much time and effort and energy to these questions, and should assume that his readers are going to do so as well, when it is all merely a matter of knowing exactly what the food will be like when you happen to fly. To assign that kind of attention to this kind of nonsense?


            To some extent, this feeling has permeated our world: a whole culture of enjoyment has begun to take hold. This is something which is recent, and with which anyone who is a ben-Torah, certainly, should in no way identify or associate. That whole culture advocates that man is born for pleasure, but unfortunately has to work if he wants to enjoy. In contrast, we have to know that “Adam le-amal yulad,” Man is born to do labor” (Iyyov 5:7).



I’ve addressed myself here to one major question, namely, the sense of a person’s existence in the service of God, and the responsibilities and obligations which attend upon that existence: obligations vis-a-vis God, the world and oneself. The importance of work, and of constructive contribution through involvement in the world and society, is very, very clear, and is a cardinal element in our basic worldview. There is, though, another aspect to this question, which at this point I will simply mention. The Rambam said above that a person should engage in only two things—divrei chokhma and yishuvo shel olam. What he does not describe there is the breakdown between these two.


            Surely, this is a very major question for us, and it is a significant and legitimate question at a universal level as well. To what extent should one engage in work—and by work I mean not simply making money, but rather constructive activity—and to what extent should he pursue wisdom? A gentile, too, has a certain dimension of talmud Torah: “Rabbi Meir says: Even a gentile who occupies himself with the Torah is like a High Priest” (Sanhedrin 59a). The gemara later understands this in terms of more universal wisdom, the Seven Noachide Laws. Even secular advocates of the work ethic have had to deal with the relation between work and other cultural, aesthetic or moral values. How much more so for us, for whom Torah study is so central—“You shall meditate upon it day and night” (Yehoshua 1:8). Thus, while our position is clear regarding work versus hedonism, the question of work versus Torah study is entirely different, and will be treated independently in the next lecture.




Does the Torah Supplant or Supplement Universal Values?


At the beginning of this lecture, I proposed that we deal with three levels of duty incumbent upon us: as human beings, as Jews, and as benei-Torah. I then discussed the first of these, namely, our general responsibilities as humans. However, this entire discussion entails the assumption that, subsequent to the Jewish Nation’s keritat berit (formulation of a covenant) with God, we are still bound by the more general norms that preceded it. It is this assumption I would like now to address.



A berit (covenant) is something special and unique; by definition, it delineates a particular relationship between God and a specific community. What then happens to more universal elements? Do these fall away because of the exclusivity of the new relationship? Or do we regard the new relationship as being superimposed upon the old, but not at odds with it?


            Even according to the latter approach, at times there may be a conflict between a universal value and a specific one. Fundamentally, however, this approach regards the specific covenant as complementing and building on top of the universal covenant, rather than replacing it and rendering it obsolete. According to this approach, we do not believe that what existed until now was merely scaffolding which was needed until the building was complete, but now that the building is finished, everything else is insignificant. Instead, we assume that whatever commitments, demands and obligations devolve upon a person simply as a member of the universal community, will also apply to him within his unique context as well; but in addition, there are also new demands.


            This question has been raised extensively within the Christian context, where it is referred to as the issue of “nature and grace.” Does the order of grace—which is the more specific relationship of a given community towards God—do away with the order of nature: natural values, natural morality and natural religion? Or is the order of nature fundamentally sound, significant and normative, but in addition to it comes the order of grace? Broadly speaking, within the Christian context, the more rationalistic and humanistic thinkers have stressed that the universal component remains in force. Those who espoused a more anti-humanistic and anti-rationalistic line generally felt that anything which human reason develops, anything which is universal, anything which is not part of the specific order of revelation, is absolutely meaningless and not binding. In fact, they felt it may even be injurious, because it leads a person to think that these kinds of universal values are significant, whereas in reality the order of nature was good for one phase of human history but has been totally replaced by the order of grace.



Translating this into our categories, I recall years back hearing a talk by mori ve-rabbi Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l regarding the relationship between berit Avraham and berit Noach (God’s covenants with Avraham and Noach). As he put it, did berit Avraham come “on top” of the foundation of berit Noach, or was it meant to replace it? Rav Hutner wished to learn from Rabbeinu Yona (Berakhot 49a) that the latter was the case, and he took Shabbat as the test case. Jews, of course, are commanded not to work on Shabbat. However, Chazal interpreted the verse, “Summer and winter, day and night shall not cease” (Bereishit 8:22) as teaching us that Benei Noach (descendants of Noach, i.e. general humanity) are always obligated to work; in fact, a gentile who refrains from melakha (labor) on Shabbat is punished! (See Sanhedrin 58b.) Evidently, concluded Rav Hutner, the universal value of “[They] shall not cease” has been countervailed within our more specific Jewish context. Thus, the new berit is meant to replace the old.


            I do not adopt this general approach; in fact, I think quite the contrary is true. Whatever is demanded of us as part of Kenesset Yisrael does not negate what is demanded of us simply as human beings on a universal level, but rather comes in addition. (Regarding Shabbat, let me just briefly note that the sanctity of Shabbat does not abrogate the universal value of work, but rather adds an additional element to the picture.)



Similarly, I believe mattan Torah (the giving of the Torah) also needs to be understood in a dual fashion. At one level, mattan Torah was a wholly new departure; there was nothing like it before. One can indeed speak of “Nittena Torah ve-nitchadsha halakha”—the Torah was given and the law was renewed. In this vein, the Rambam states that although some mitzvot (such as the seven Noachide laws) were given before mattan Torah, we are obligated by them only because they were reiterated at Sinai.As examples, he cites the prohibitions of eating ever min ha-chai (a limb from a live animal) and gid ha-nasheh (the sciatic nerve), and the commandment of circumcision. Although these appear previously (with regard to Noach, Ya’akov and Avraham respectively), our obligation is based solely on the fact that they were reinforced through mattan Torah.


            In another sense, however, one can regard Torah not as a totally new chapter in human history, but rather as the pinnacle of the earlier development. Although in one perspective Torah can be seen as unique and relating only to Kenesset Yisrael, there is another perspective in which one can view Torah as being the highest stage in human development. The Rambam elsewhere seems to speak in these terms, using a very telling phrase. When discussing the evolution of Torah, he says:


Six precepts were given to Adam . . . An additional commandment was given to Noach . . . So it was until the appearance of Avraham, who, in addition to the aforementioned commandments, was charged to practice circumcision. Moreover, Avraham instituted the Morning Prayer. Yitzchak tithed and instituted the Afternoon Prayer. Ya’akov added [the prohibition of eating] the sciatic nerve and he inaugurated the Evening Prayer. In Egypt, Amram (Moshe’s father) was commanded additional mitzvot, until our master Moshe arrived and the Torah was completed through him. (Hilkhot Melakhim 9:1)


            The phrase, “nishlema al yado, it was completed through him,” suggests that there were various stages and that Moshe is the pinnacle, not that Moshe’s Torah simply disposes of everything which had preceded it.



The major text dealing with the relationship between Jewish law and universal law is the famous Mekhilta at the beginning of Mishpatim which addresses the issue of one who kills a gentile. In parashat Noach, there appears a general directive to humanity: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Bereishit 9:6). However, a verse in Mishpatim (Shemot 21:14) seems to indicate a Jew is put to death only if he murders a fellow Jew. How are we to understand this?


Issi ben Akiva says: Before the giving of the Torah, we were prohibited to murder. After the giving of the Torah, instead of being more stringent, are we now more lenient!? (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishma’el, Parasha 4, s.v. Ve-khi Yazid)


            Issi ben Akiva finds it inconceivable that something which had previously been forbidden to general humanity would now be permitted to Jews by the Torah. The gemara applies this reasoning with regard to various laws, asking simply, “Is it possible that there is anything at all which is permitted to a Jew, yet nonetheless is prohibited to a non-Jew?”


            The principle elucidated by Issi ben Akiva does not necessarily negate the possibility that the new berit abolishes the old one. One may argue that indeed the new berit supplants the old, and the Jew can approach God only through God’s covenantal relationship with Kenesset Yisrael—but in terms of its content, the new berit must be more demanding than the old one.


            Even if this is so, it does not matter much for our purposes. When trying to understand what are the normative demands made upon us, there is not a great difference between saying that the old berit is gone and the new one comprehends all of the contents of the old, and saying that there exists a dual level of responsibility. Practically speaking, both positions agree that whatever is demanded of a person on a universal level is a priori demanded of a Jew as well; Torah morality is at least as exacting as general morality. The only difference is whether we formulate the demand as emanating from a general covenant or from the specific berit. Thus, part of what is demanded of a ben-Torah is simply, on an initial level, what is demanded of every person as a human being.



Broadly speaking, this is what is intended by the celebrated phrase, “Derekh eretz kadma la-Torah” (“Civility preceded the Torah”). Chazal (Vayikra Rabba 9:3) understood this in historical terms: the Torah came twenty-six generations after the precepts of derekh eretz had already been in effect. But there is another meaning to this phrase, which refers to logical or axiological priority. The Maharal (Netivot Ha-Torah, Netiv Derekh Eretz) understands it in this sense. The ben-Torah in you is built on the spiritual person in you; if it is the other way around, then you are walking on your head, so to speak.


            Let me emphasize that this has nothing to do with the question of what is more valuable. If we say that something is prior to something else, it does not necessarily mean that it is more important. For example, there are two ways we can understand Chazal’s requirement that someone who wants to be a ben-Torah must be “yirato kodemet le-chokhmato—his fear [of Heaven] must precede his wisdom” (Avot 3:9). It is entirely conceivable that Chazal intend to say that ultimately the yira is really more important than the chokhma (as important as the chokhma may be). However, we can also understand this as referring to logical precedence; and what serves as the basis is not necessarily the most important element. Although foundations must precede a building both temporally and logically, no one would imagine that they are more important than the building.


            Chazal themselves may have been divided on this question, as would appear in the following dialogue:


While Rabbi Simon and Rabbi Elazar were sitting, Rabbi Ya’akov bar Acha passed in front of them. The one said to the other, “Let us stand before him, because he is a man who fears sin.” The other said, “Let us stand before him because he is a scholar.” He replied, “I tell you he fears sin and you tell me he is a scholar!?” [In other words, I praise his fear of sin, and you think that being a scholar is greater?] (Shabbat 31b)


            The one who believes that chokhma is more important than yira does not negate the fact that yira must precede chokhma. The kind of chokhma which may be more important than yira is only one which is rooted in yira. Chazal say (e.g. Ta’anit 7a) that chokhma which is not rooted in yira, God forbid, is not an elixir of life but rather a potion of death.


            So, in speaking of “Derekh eretz kadma la-Torah,” we should not in any way prejudge what is more or less important, simply because one precedes the other. The question of importance is a totally independent issue. But as far as kedima—what provides the matrix, the context, the foundation—one can speak of the logical and not only the temporal priority of derekh eretz over Torah.



Thus, our specific Jewish commitment rests on our universal commitment, and one cannot address oneself only to the specific elements while totally ignoring the general and the universal ones. Therefore, in delineating what a ben-Torah should be striving for, the initial level of aspiration is a general one: to be a mensch, to hold basic universal values, to meet normative universal demands.


            This point has no bearing upon the question of the temporal sequence via which a person attains his values. I mentioned before that Chazal say there was a period stretching over millennia during which the world had derekh eretz and didn’t have Torah. This does not mean that, moving from the macrocosm to the microcosm, one therefore should practice the same while educating his children, saying, “We’ll devote the first ten or so years to making a mensch out of him, and then when he is bar-mitzva we will see to it that he becomes an observant Jew as well.” Obviously, with- in the world in which we live, this is not an advisable option. If you want your child to be a ben-Torah and a shomer mitzvot, you have to imbue him with values of Torah and yirat Shamayim from a very early age. But this still means that as he grows and matures, he must be given to understand that he needs to address himself to various levels of obligation, one being universal and the other specific to him as a Jew.



1 The second level of responsibility will be addressed in lecture #3 and the third level in lecture #4.

2 This was later printed as, “Abortion: A Halakhic Perspective,” Tradition 25 (1991), pp. 3-12, and appears on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash:

3 See Bava Kama 90b-91b and Rambam, Hilkhot Chovel U-mazik 5:1.

4 Rambam, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 26:3.

5 Shabbat 135a, Bava Batra 110b.

6 Commentary on the Mishna, Chullin 7:6.

7 See, for example, Chullin 33a and Sanhedrin 59a.


(Based on a transcript by Ramon Widmonte.

This sicha was originally delivered to first-year students at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Winter 5747 [1986-7].  It has not been reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.)          

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